The Major Scale Formula for Guitar

Updated September 8th, 2023 . 

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Scales

Western music begins with the major scale, establishing its central tenets of chromatic, diatonic harmony, as well as of equal temperament between notes. Even the minor and minor pentatonic scales contain the same notes as their relative major scales, though we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. At the centre of all of this, including the fabled circle of fifths, is the C Major Scale, devoid of flats and sharps, harmonically true and simple, and it is here that we shall begin.

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The Major Scale Formula

To make things simpler on the less learned, there is a fantastically understandable formula that we might use as a basis for understanding and exercising our learning on the major scale. Each and every major scale, wherever transposed, comprises the same fundamental formula, which though based on the intonation of a keyboard instrument, is perfectly adapted to the guitar too.

Each variation of the scale has seven degrees, seven notes that ascend or descend before you reach the tonic (root) note again. Thus, the pattern for working out these notes, beginning from the root, is always: Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half. On a guitar we would see a whole note as equivalent to two frets, and a half as equivalent to one fret.

Here’s where the C Major Scale comes in, to show us how this works in action:

C2 fretsD2 fretsE1 fretF2 fretsG2 fretsA2 fretsB1 fret

This is the basis for all major scales, wherever and whichever note their root may lie upon.

To engage the learning part of the brain, I might encourage you to find a key, any at all that takes your fancy (or even pick one at random!), and using the method above attempt to work out all of the notes contained within. Remember: no two notes can repeat themselves in a scale, so in an F Major Scale, for example, where there is one augmented note, it is a B flat instead of an A sharp because an A note is already present in the scale. Exercises like this are vital in enmeshing the learning with your psyche so that it becomes second nature, conditioning the brain to think along these lines.

Relative Major & Minor Scales

Once you feel comfortable with this, then it might further comfort you to know that you have essentially mastered the minor scale too! For every major scale and major key, there is a relative minor, a mirror image which uses the exact same notes but is radically altered by the adjustment of the root note.

This is easily visualised on a guitar, simply by taking the major root and working down three frets, and there you have it! Your very own relative minor! The same logic can be used in reverse to find a relative major too, working one’s way up the fretboard by three. And when we say the notes are the same, we mean exactly the same! Hence why, when noodling, the guitar can sometimes miraculously sound in tune despite the conscious mind thinking it’s using a completely different scale!

Here we can see the relative minor of the above C Major Scale – see if you can spot the difference!

C Major & A Minor Scales

A2 fretsB1 fretC2 fretsD2 fretsE1 fretF2 fretsG2 frets

Surprise! There aren’t any. Aside from the root note, the notes are identical. And notice how the formula only changes in relation to the key change: Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole.

Might I suggest you improvise the C Major Scale you’ve already learnt over the top of this A Minor backing track. Even just going up and down the scale at your own pace is a good place to start!

And then, how about running up and down the minor scale atop this C Major backing track? Performing exercises like this will have your brain firing up, rearing to learn, and remember that it’s okay to feel somewhat uncomfortable at first – you’re not going to immediately be Robert Fripp. However, with consistent, dedicated practise and study, I don’t doubt you could give him a run for his money!

Extended Major Scale

As you should know by now, a major scale and its relative minor share exactly the same notes, differing only in the root keynote that they begin upon. It is thus that we can extend both the major and minor into one long scale that, once implemented, can stretch the span of this single series of seven notes to six frets and six strings, unlocking acres of fretboard real estate.

Metaphorically bending the relationship between major and minor in this way is guaranteed to ignite your improvisations and compositions, melodically and harmonically, the relativity between majors and minors offering portals and corridors through which to navigate songwriting and sonic storytelling.

Why not, as in the last task, try transposing to a key of your choice and improvising with an appropriate backing track or drone?

Major Scale Explained

There is doubtless anything more important or embryonic in Western musical philosophy than the ideas here discussed up until this point. Almost anything composed in the West from the 16th Century onwards is at least somewhat informed by this harmonic basis, if not positively then negatively in an active transgression against it. Popular music in the West is no exception, and most things composed for guitar or that can be played on the guitar follow similar methodologies, performed as they are under equal temperament and the like.

Following such logic, I encourage you to pick a popular song, with a hummable tune, find the key and play along with it, improvise with it, or simply run up and down the scale as long as it takes for you to feel comfortable within the bounds of the song. That it’s coming from your own initiative will only cement this learning inside your mind further.


What is the formula for the major and minor scale on A guitar?

Major Scale Formula is W-W-H-W-W-W-H and Minor Scale Formula is W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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